Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

The Book of Daniel is a patchwork of material, and I can well believe the scholars who hold that it is a compilation of stories rather than the work of a single author.  The first half is composed of short stories about the prophet Daniel and his friends, and the last half, a series of prophetic and surreal visions.  Even in the earlier, narrative portion of the book, every chapter is different.  It starts out in Hebrew; then switches to Aramaic in chapter 2; then in chapter 3 it forgets about the title character and tells a story about these other guys.

And then there’s chapter 4.  In the fourth chapter of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar himself gets to tell his own story.  And what a story it is.

King Nebuchadnezzar,
To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world:
May you prosper greatly!
It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.(Daniel 4:1-2 NIV)

The chapter is framed as a royal proclamation in which the King addresses all his subjects as well as all the people on the earth.  Which as far as Nebuchadnezzar was concerned, amounted to the same thing; we see the same language in other decrees of his mentioned in Daniel.  Yes, his ego was really that big.  That’s kind of the point of this story.

This is the only story in the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel told in the first person.  The last half of the book, describing Daniel’s prophetic dreams, are told from Daniel’s point of view, but he does not narrate the earlier chapters.  This chapter, is a personal account, given not by a prophet or a holy man, but a heathen despot.

Nebuchadnezzar tells of how one day, while lying at home in his palace, happy and contented, he has a terrifying dream.  Something like this happened once before, you may remember, with the dream of the great statue.  And as in the previous instance, he calls upon his court magi, his astrologers, diviners and magicians, to interpret it.  This time, at least, he tells them what the dream was, but they still can’t divine its meaning.

Finally he calls upon Daniel.  In a parenthetical remark, he explains that Daniel is also called Belteshazzar, for the benefit of any of his subjects who find the name “Daniel” hard to spell; and further explains that “...the spirit of the holy gods is in him.” (Daniel 4:8)

Why didn’t Nebuchadnezzar summon Daniel first?  He knows from the previous dream that Daniel is good at this divination stuff; and he had placed Daniel in charge of all the other Wise Guys of Babylon.  Dramatic pacing for one thing.  It adds a touch of suspense and makes for a better story.  And, perhaps from a more practical point of view, because Daniel was in charge of the court magi.  Daniel might have been busy with administrative duties.  You don’t bother the Department Head when one of his subordinates can answer the question for you; you summon his to handle the tough stuff.

I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you.  Here is my dream; interpret it for me.”  (4:9)


One little touch of this story that I like is that, although Nebuchadnezzar has come to respect the Hebrew God of Daniel, and in this story receives another lesson in that God’s greatness, he does not cease to be a Babylonian.  He still calls Daniel by his Bablyonian name of Belteshazzar, (“Bel protect him”, Bel being another name for the Babylonian god Marduk), and attributes Daniel’s wisdom to the gods collectively, not to one God in particular.  It gives Nebuchadnezzar an individual voice, and he does not seem like a sock puppet for some Jewish writer wishing to put down a moral lesson.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

So Nebuchadnezzar tells Daniel his dream.  It’s of a ginormous tree he sees whose top touches the sky and could be seen from the ends of the earth; whose leaves were beautiful and fruit abundant; a tree big enough to shelter the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and to provide food for all.  It was one big honkin’ tree.

But then a messenger comes down from the heavens; a holy one.  Some translations call it a watchman or a watcher, bringing to mind the Watchers of the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, antediluvian über-angels.  The Watcher commands that the tree be cut down and its branches lopped off; that its leaves be stripped off and its fruits scattered; that the animals living in and underneath the tree be driven off.  The stump shall remain, bound in bronze and iron, in the midst of the grass of the field.

That was certainly weird, but the next part more disturbing.  The Watcher goes on to say:

“Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth.  Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass for him.”  (4:15-16)

What could this mean?  Nebuchadnezzar is sure that his man Belteshazzar can interpret it; what with him having the spirit of the gods in him and all.

Daniel doesn’t answer right away.  The text says he “...was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him.”  Not because he didn’t know the dream’s meaning, I think, but because he knew that the king wouldn’t like what he heard.  And here the text switches from First Person back to Third Person.  Yes, it’s inconsistent; but this shifts the focus away from Nebuchadnezzar and how he felt, and to the message.  But the King urges Daniel to lay it on him, and so Daniel does.

“My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!”  Daniel explains that Nebuchadnezzar himself was that tree, great and strong whose dominion stretches to the ends of the earth.  But for all his greatness, a time will come when he is driven away from people and will live with the wild animals, out in the open, eating the grass of the field.  “Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (4:23-16)

But although the tree would be destroyed, the stump would remain; meaning that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom would be restored to him, when he admitted that he was subject to Heaven.

Daniel concludes by begging the king to do what is right and to renounce his wickedness by being kind to the oppressed and offering the hope that his present prosperity may continue.

Was Nebuchadnezzar angered by Daniel’s interpretation?  The text doesn’t say.  But it does say that about twelve months later, the king happened to be walking on the roof of the royal palace of Bablyon and began admiring all that he had accomplished.

“Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”  (4:29-30)

The city of Babylon had been a relatively small one before the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, but Nebuchadnezzar had built up his capital to be worthy of his new conquests.  He rebuilt the Eteminaki ziggurat, dedicated to Marduk, which had been destroyed by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib; enlarged the palace, and built the Ishtar Gate, largest of the eight gates of Babylon.  According to Herodotus, (who isn’t always accurate, but who knew a good story), Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to please his wife who was homesick for the gardens of her native country.  Inscriptions have been found in which Nebuchadnezzar boasts of his building achievements, including one in which he claims to have personally cut down the cedars from Lebanon used in his palace.  Perhaps the dream carried an echo of that boast.

So when Nebuchadnezzar looked out on the city he had built, its massive walls, it’s high temples and opulent palaces, he could not help but swell with pride and say:

“I built that.”

The words have scarcely escaped his lips when a voice comes from heaven and repeats the words of the messenger from his dream.  “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar:  Your royal authority has been taken from you…”  (4:31)

Immediately, Daniel’s prediction comes to pass.  Nebuchadnezzar loses his reason and thinks he is a cow.  He is driven away from the public and eats grass like cattle and stays out in the wild where he is drenched by the dew of heaven.  His hair grows long like eagle’s feathers and his fingernails like the talons of a bird.

Apparently, this is an actual mental illness in which a person thinks he’s some type of bovine.  It’s called “boanthropy”, which sounds more scientific than “He Thinks He’s A Cow.”  I have to wonder, though, if Nebuchadnezzar’s condition is an ironic reference to the winged bull figures common as guardian spirits in Mesopotamian art.  He worshipped a bulls with the heads of men, and turned into a man with the mind of a cow.

Be that as it may, Nebuchadnezzar remains in this semi-bovine state for “seven times”.  How long is that?  It could mean “seven years”, and that is how the phrase is often rendered; but if the King of Babylon had been missing for seven years, wouldn’t someone have noticed?  Yeah, granted having the king start going about on all fours and saying “Moo” is not something most governments would want to commemorate; but you’d think there would be some sort of record of there being a regent in charge during that period or something like that.

One of the sources I researched claims that a Greek Historian named Abydenus from the 3rd Century BC says that Nebuchadnezzar had been “possessed by some god” and had disappeared.  The actual story from Abydenus, though, seems to be about the king going into a fit and predicting the fall of Babylon and then dying.  It doesn’t seem to fit the Cow story.

The same source states that there is no historical record of Nebuchadnezzar’s governmental activity between 582 B.C. and 575 B.C.  I don’t know enough of Mesopotamian history to know if this is true or not; but I suppose it’s possible that perhaps he was A.W.O.L. during that period and the account in Daniel Chapter 4 is based on an actual proclamation he made to explain where he’d been.

Another source cites an tablet from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, currently in the British Museum, which seems to describe him suffering some sort of mental breakdown; but the tablet is incomplete and open to interpretation.

2 [Nebu]chadnezzar considered […..]3 His life appeared of no value to [him...]5 And Babylonian speaks bad counsel to Evil-merodach […..]6 Then he gave an entirely different order but [………]7 He does not heed the word from his lips, the cour[tiers……]11 He does not show love to son and daughter […..]12 …family and clan do not exist [………]14 His attention was not directed towards promoting the welfare of Esagil [and Babylon]16 He prays to the Lord of lords, he raised [his hands in supplication….]17 He weeps bitterly to Marduk, the g[reat] god [……] 18 His prayer go forth, to [………]

Suggestive, yes, but the passage could as easily be describing a crippling bout of depression.  Now, if it had the king saying “Moo!” or “There’s nothing like hay for a headache”, why then it would support Daniel’s account a little better.  Maybe that’s on the broken-off part of the tablet.

Or maybe the “seven times” of the Biblical text refers to a shorter period of time: seven months, or even seven weeks.  Raised though I was in a tradition of Biblical Inerrancy, I tend to be suspicious whenever the Bible speaks of numbers like “seven” or “forty”.  It makes me wonder if these numbers are being cited to the most significant decimal, or if they are being used symbolically.  “Seven” is the number of Completion in Hebraic literature, and perhaps “seven times” merely means “the period of time sufficient to fulfill God’s purpose.”

At the end of this period, Nebuchadnezzar regains his senses and his sanity is restored.  He is once again capable of taking over narrating the story.

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.  Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.  (Daniel 4:34)

His advisors and nobles seek him out and he is restored to his throne.  And, dang it all, he becomes even greater than he was before.

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.  And those who walk in pride, he is able to humble.  (Daniel 4:37)

Which isn’t to say that Nebuchadnezzar became a humble man.  Reading his voice in his proclamation I just don’t hear that.  And he was, after all, still king of the Greatest Nation on Earth.  But it’s always healthy for a ruler to remember occasionally that there are things even greater than he.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Hot Time in Babylon

Daniel is one of the more famous prophets of the Old Testament, but sometimes his buddies get overlooked.  He had three companions, named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; but we know them better, when we remember them at all, by the names they were given in the Babylonian court:  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Like Daniel, they were brought to Babylon to serve in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar; and like Daniel, they had to grapple with the problem of serving a pagan king while still maintaining their religious identity.  This is a conflict that runs through much of the book of Daniel.  And for a while, things got pretty hot for them.

But first, a little more about their names.  Hananiah, in Hebrew, means “Jah (short for “YHWH”, the divine Name of God) is gracious”.  His name was changed to Shadrach, which it is believed means “command of Aku”, (a Sumerian moon-god).  Mishael means “Who is like God?”; he became Meshach, “Who is what Aku is?”.  And Azariah, “Jah has helped” became Abednego, meaning “servant of Nego” (probably a corruption or a variation of the name “Nebo” or “Nabu”, the Sumerian god of wisdom; which is also a part of Nebuchadnezzar’s name.  In the comic books, Nabu created the magic helmet which gave mystical powers to Dr. Fate.  Aren’t you glad you asked?)

And just for completion’s sake, let’s not leave out Daniel.  His name means “God is my Judge”, and although the Bible usually calls him by his Hebrew name, the Babylonians called him Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel (another name for Marduk, king of the Sumerian gods) protect his life”.

Four men, whose names reference the Hebrew God, who are given new names that invoke instead the gods of Babylon.  I mentioned that theme of religious identity, didn’t I?

Because of Daniel’s success in divining the meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel chapter 2, the King has placed him in charge of the capital province of the empire and of all of its wise men; and has placed Daniel’s three friends as administrators of the province.  Daniel himself remained at the King’s court, which might explain why he’s not involved in this particular story.

The King has a statue made, covered with gold and standing some 90 feet high.  Whether the statue itself was 90 feet tall, or whether it was standing on a very tall platform or whether it was just wearing funky ‘70s platform shoes, the text doesn’t specify.  The statue might have been an image of Nebuchadnezzar himself; or perhaps it was meant to represent the god Nabu; (or perhaps both, since Nebuchadnezzar was named after him).

One thing always puzzled me.  In the Picture Bibles and Illustrated Children’s Bibles I saw as a kid, the statue in this story is always identical to the one in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from Daniel chapter 2.  This would suggest that the two stories are connected … except that they aren’t.  They just both have statues.  Perhaps the artists have this deep-seated feeling that they should be connected somehow.

Nebuchadnezzar gathers together all the satraps, prefects, governors, advisors, treasurer, judges, -- pretty much the whole Babylonian bureaucracy from middle-management on up – to the plain of Dura where the statue was erected.

Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language:  As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”  (Daniel 3:4-6 NIV)

One commentary I’ve read suggests that this was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was still fairly recently-established, and that this ceremony was intended to confirm the newly-appointed administrators and the existing ones in their office.  It could have been like signing a Loyalty Oath or Pledging Allegiance to the Flag or taking an Oath of Office.

I remember from reading Plutarch that the Persians, whose empire succeeded the Babylonian’s, had a practice of prostrating themselves before their rulers; and that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and his new Persian subjects bowed in a similar way before him, Alexander’s Greek and Macedonian companions were majorly freaked, because it looked an awful lot like worship and they worried that Alex might demand the same obsequiousness from them.

Shadrach, Meshach and Adednego liked this bowing before idols jazz even less than Alex’s companions did.  So they just didn’t do it.  My old Picture Bibles show them defiantly standing while everyone else around them are kneeling with their foreheads in the dirt.  I think it might be more likely that they just arranged to be Somewhere Else when the zithers began to play.

Whether they were obvious about their civil disobedience or not, somebody noticed.  Some astrologers – and remember, Shadrach & Co. had been placed in charge of the wise men of the province, so these would have been their subordinates, finked on them.

“But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – who pay no attention to you, O king.  They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3:12)

At this point, I can’t help but wonder, where is Daniel during all this?  Was he exempt from bowing to the golden image?  If so, why didn’t he try to intercede on behalf of his friends?  Was he out of the province on the King’s business? Or did he take the easy way out and do what all the other satraps were doing?  We aren’t told.  The text makes no mention of Daniel in the entire chapter.  But the trap his friends find themselves in here is very similar to the one Daniel later finds himself in with King Darius later on in the story about the Lion’s Den.   


Nebuchadnezzar is pretty furious about this, and brings the three before him and demands to know if these accusations are true.  He gives them one more chance to obey his command and bow down before his golden image, warning them that if they don’t, they’re going straight into the furnace.  “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” (3:15)

Nebuchadnezzar may be hot under the collar, but the three guys play it cool.

“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3:16-18)

You can’t really blame Nebuchadnezzar for being sore.  After all, he had given these three foreigners positions of high honor and authority; and this is how they thank him?

He orders the furnaces used for executions be heated up seven times hotter than it oughter.  The furnace grew so hot, that the strong men he ordered to carry the bound prisoners to the furnace perished from the heat.  They were just able to shove the three men into the inferno.

At this point, there’s a lengthy passage in some versions of the text which does not appear in the older Hebrew/Aramaic texts of Daniel but was included in the Greek Septuagint translation of the 2nd Century BC.  Catholic and Orthodox Bibles include this passage following verse 23; but Protestant versions omit it, (or at most segregate it to the Aporcrypha).  It’s called the Prayer of Azariah  and the Hymn of the Three Young Men.

It starts with the three young men walking around amidst the flames of the furnace, praying and singing hymns.  Azariah, (Abednego’s Hebrew name, you’ll recall), utters this prayer, in which he praises God for his justice and acknowledges the wrongdoings of the people of Judah which had led to their current exile.  Azariah beseeches God, for the sake of their forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and for his divine covenant, to have mercy upon them and deliver the three from the wicked king.

“Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in thy forbearance and in thy abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with thy marvelous works, and give glory to thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world.”(Song of the Three Young Men, vv. 19-22 RSV)

The passage then describes how and angel of the Lord comes down and drives the flames away from the young men so that they are not harmed.  The three of them break into a spontaneous hymn of praise:

“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; And blessed is thy glorious, holy name and to be highly praised and highly exalted for ever;”(Song of the Three Young Men, vv. 29-30)

The hymn goes on for a couple dozen verses more; and the text of it is sometimes used as a canticle in the liturgy of the Anglican church.

Now all this does not go unnoticed by the King.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look!  I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”  (Daniel 3:24-25)

Without the explanation given in the Song of the Three, the reader is as surprised by the fourth guy as the King is.  I don’t know; I kind of like the sense of mystery we get from having the angel just be there without being told how or when he appeared.  But what is this fourth figure in the fire?

Many Christian interpreters claim that when the Old Testament speaks of The Angel of the Lord, (as opposed to, say , an angel of the Lord), that it’s a reference to the Pre-Incarnate Christ making a cameo appearance.  This is made even more explicit in the King James Version, where the King says he looks like “the Son of God” and not just like “… a son of the gods.” 

I think King Jim overstates Nebuchadnezzar’s theological perception here.  Given Nebuchadnezzar’s religious background, he wouldn’t know the Second Person of the Trinity from Utnapishtim; he’d be more likely, I think, to identify a person with a divine appearance as a son of a god, than as The Son of God.  Personally, I’m just as happy to leave the mysterious Guy #4 be an angel and not bother with the Christological ramifications.

The King calls to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and tells them to come out of the furnace.  They emerge completely untouched by the flames.  He has to admit that the trust they placed in their God was justified.

Which, come to think of it, is another recurring theme of the first half of the Book of Daniel:  every chapter concludes with the King acknowledging the power of the Hebrew God.

Of course, it doesn’t stop him from doing something stupid in the following chapter.

But for the time being, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are safe; they receive promotions from the King; and all is well.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Visit From the In-Laws

Sometimes, in-laws can be annoying, when they drop in offering unsolicited advice.  But sometimes that advice is useful, as Moses learned when his father-in-law came to visit.

Like Melchizadek, Jethro is one of those mysterious, righteous men who just show up in scriptures without any explanation, who has no direct connection to the People of Israel, yet nevertheless is recognized as a servant of and a spokesman for the God of Abraham.

Jethro is described as a priest of Midian, a region on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Aqaba, part of modern-day Saudi Arabia.  Some commentators have stretched Midian to include parts of the Sinai peninsula, on the other side of the Gulf, because Jethro seems to have lived in the vicinity of Mount Sinai; but since there is disagreement as to the exact location of that mountain, they could well be mistaken.  Or perhaps Jethro did a lot of traveling.

The Midianites did have a connection to Abraham, though.  They are said to have been the descendants of Abraham and Keturah, a woman he married after Sarah’s death.  (Genesis 25:1-4)  It’s possible that they carried on the monotheistic religion of Abraham.  On the other hand, Rabbinic Tradition states that Jethro had previously worshipped all the idols of the world, before coming to reject them and worshipping the God of Israel.

My personal suspicion is that Moses, raised as he was at Pharaoh’s court, had only a cursory knowledge of the Hebrew religion as it was practiced at that time; and that what he learned from Jethro while living among the Midianites shaped what became known as the Law of Moses.  But this is just a wacky guess.

When we first meet Jethro in Exodus chapter 2, the text calls him Reuel.  His daughters are being harassed by some rowdy shepherds while getting water from a local well, and the then fugitive Moses shows up and chases the shepherds off.  The girls bring Moses home, one thing leads to another, and before you know it, Moses is married to one of them, Zipporah.  In later chapters, Reuel is called Jethro, which could be a title meaning “his Excellency.”

When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he headed toward the mountain where he had encountered the Lord, speaking through a burning bush.  At some point in their journey, he sent his wife, Zipporah, accompanied by his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, ahead to father-in-law.  Jethro comes out to meet Moses, bringing the family with him.  So they sit and schmooze for a while, and Moses tells him all about what’s been happening with him in the previous seventeen chapters of Exodus.  Jethro is impressed.

Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians.  He said, “Praise be to the LORD who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians.  Now I know that they LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.”  (Exodus 18:9-11 NIV)

Jethro brings a sacrifice to the LORD, Moses introduces him to his brother Aaron and to the tribal elders, and they have a nice dinner.

The next day, Jethro is still hanging around and he gets to see his son-in-law at work.  Moses takes his seat and people come to him bringing complaints for judgment.  He spends all day, from morning to evening, listening to cases and rendering verdicts.  Finally Jethro takes him aside and asks him, what the heck he’s doing.

Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will.  Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.”  (Exodus 18:15-16)

This is not good.  Jethro tells Moses that he’ll wear himself down to a frazzle if he keeps up like this.  He can’t handle these kinds of administrative duties alone.  He needs to start delegating things.

“Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you.  You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.  Teach them the decrees ad laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform.”  (vv. 19-20)

Well that’s what he’s doing.  But Jethro continues:

“But select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide for themselves.  That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.”  (vv. 21-22)

Yeah, that does sound reasonable.  Moses does as his father-in-law suggests.

It seems to me that this might be the start of a systematic government among the Israelites.  Rather than an informal system where people go to the tribal leader, Moses establishes a bureaucracy.  Not only does this lighten his own workload and allow him to concentrate on the aspects of leadership that only he can do; it also creates a structure so that after he’s gone, the Israelites can continue to govern themselves without his leadership.

A parallel situation comes up in the New Testament.  When the Christian community was starting out in Jerusalem and beginning to grow, it early on established a mission of distributing food to the widows and the needy among them.  But some complaints arose that the Hebraic Jews, those born and raised in Judea, who spoke mostly Aramaic and/or Hebrew, were getting special treatment over the Grecian Jews, those originally from outside Palestine who spoke predominantly Greek.  (Acts 6:1)

The Twelve, (the eleven disciples of Jesus plus Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas), called a meeting of the whole fellowship.  “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables,” they said.  So they propose that the group select seven men who would have the special job of handling the day-to-day administration of the congregation.  (Acts 6:2-6)  Although the text does not explicitly say so, it seems likely to me that the Twelve were looking back to Jethro’s advice as precedent for handling their own problem.

After Jethro gives Moses his advice, he sees that his job there is done.  He bids his son-in-law farewell and returns to his own country.  We don’t hear from him again.


Sometimes we fell we need to do everything ourselves.  But even Moses had to rely on others sometimes; and sometimes he needed the advice of a friend and counselor.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Know Your Herods II: Herod Antipas, That Wily Fox

Of all of the numerous members of the dysfunctional House of Herod, the one who gets the most mention in the New Testament is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.  This is understandable, because the Ministry of Jesus took place during his reign, and for the most part in the territory Herod Antipas ruled.

Antipas spent much of his early years growing up at the court in Rome, as did many other members of his family.  His name, Antipas, was short for Antipater, the name of his grandfather and also of his oldest step-brother.

When Herod the Great died in the year 4 BC, he left his affairs in some disarray.  Originally, he had intended to leave his kingdom to Aristobulus and Alexander, his two sons by his second wife, his beloved Mariamne.  But late in his life, he suspected them of plotting treason and so disinherited them and had them killed.  Perhaps they even were.

He then named his first son, Antipater, the child of his first wife, Doris, as heir.  But Antipater was also accused of plotting to murder his father, and was tried before the Roman governor of Syria.  He was found guilty, and with the approval of the Emperor, executed.

You’d think Herod would be running out of heirs by this time, but no; he’d married ten times before he died, and still had plenty of spares.  This time he jumped ahead past the other other sons and named his youngest, Antipas, to succeed him as King of Judea.

But at the last minute, he changed his mind again, and wrote a new will, dividing Judea amongst Herod and a couple other sons.  The eldest of the remaining sons, Archelaus, got Judea proper, Idumea, (where Grandpa Antipater came from) and Samaria.  Philip got Gaulantis, Batanea and Trachontis, the northeastern portion of the province.  Their aunt, Herod’s sister Salome, was given a couple cities around the present-day Gaza region.

Antipas had to settle for Galilee, the territory on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, and Perea, a strip of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

He didn’t even get to be called king.  Archelaus got that honor.  Herod was named Tetrarch, meaning ruler of a quarter.  And don’t think that didn’t rankle.

In many ways, Herod Antipas followed the example of his father, Herod the Great.  He followed Jewish laws and customs… to a certain extent.  He observed the important Jewish holidays in Jerusalem and, as his father did, the coins issued under his reign bore no portraits, as was usual with Roman coins.  But he was a highly Romanized Jew, and his palace was decorated with statues in the Greco-Roman style.

Another way he followed his father was in building projects.  He rebuilt the fortress of Machaerus on the Dead Sea and expanded it into a city in which he had his palace.  He made civic improvements in many other cities in his territory as well, but his greatest achievement was the construction of the city of Tiberius, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Like his father’s city of Caesarea, it was built according to Greco-Roman ideas of civic planning; and also like Caesarea, he made the city his capital.  He also named it after his patron, the Emperor Tiberius, and renamed the lake upon which it stood the Sea of Tiberius too, just to make sure the Emperor noticed.

Unfortunately, he had trouble at first getting his Jewish subjects to settle in his new city, because he had built it on a Jewish cemetery.  Eventually, though, the city became a center for rabbinic learning.

Early in his reign, he entered a strategic marriage with the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, a desert kingdom bordering Perea.  But soon he became interested in another girl, his niece Herodias, who happened to be married to his half-brother Herod Philip.

His wife caught wind that he was thinking of divorcing her, and realized that being Herod’s Ex-Wife was not a really tenable position to be in.  She asked and got permission to travel to Machaerus for a bit.  From there, she fled across the border with some of her father’s soldiers into her father’s territory.  Aretas, was angered by Herod’s treatment of his little girl, and some time later declared war on Herod, inflicting a rather humiliating defeat.

But for the time being, Herod didn’t care.  He was in love, and she loved him, and they both had practically the same names.    His stepbrother Philip permitted Herodias to divorce him with little fuss; (either Antipas paid him well to permit the divorce, or Philip knew Herodias better than Herod did and figured he’d be happier without her).  What more could a tetrarch ask for?

The problem was, there was this prophet.

John the Baptist, (or “the Baptizer”, as he’s known by people who don’t wish to name any specific Protestant denominations), began his ministry on the Jordan River, on the Perean border.  He called people to repentance and preached about the immanent coming of the Kingdom of God.  He also preached about the coming Messiah,  “…one more powerful than I … whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”  (Luke 3:16)

Some scholars have speculated that John was an Essene, a member of a mystic and ascetic sect of Judaism which had a community at Qumram on the Dead Sea.  The Essenes also taught an imminent Messianic Age, and they were big on ritual cleansing ceremonies, like Baptism; but as a group they focused more inward, withdrawing away from the world.  I can easily imagine John studying for a time at Qumram, but then breaking with that community to  start his own ministry.

According to the Gospels, John had a considerable following as a populist preacher.  The members of the Religious Establishment weren’t too crazy about him, but then, he wasn’t shy about calling out their hypocrisies either.

When Jesus arrived, John kind of faded from the scene.  Which was okay with him; he believed Jesus was the Messiah, after all.  “He must become greater; I must become less.”  (John 3:30)  With the start of Jesus’ ministry, John shifted gears a bit and concentrated on calling people to repentance, urging a godly life, and – here is the important part – calling out corruption in High Places.

One of these High Places was Herod’s Palace at Machaerus, where Herod Antipas was cavorting with his new wife, who was not only his niece, but also his sister-in-law; two types of incest for the price of one.  A lot of people thought this showed considerable bad taste, but John was talking about it.  Loudly.  And Herodias didn’t like it.

At Herodias’ insistence, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned; some believe at the Machaerus palace itself.  And there he sat for a while, because although Herodias wanted him dead, her husband felt some scruples about killing a prophet.  “…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.”.  And, to a certain extent, Herod seems to have been fascinated by the man.  The text goes on to say, “… When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20 NIV)

Eventually, though, Herodias got her wish. Herod have a banquet to celebrate his birthday, inviting many high officials and important men of the region.  Herodias’ daughter, Herod’s step-daughter came in and danced to entertain the party. The Gospel’s don’t give us the daughter’s name, but Josephus tells us it was Salome; probably after Great-Grandpa Herod’s sister. 

Although the Gospels don’t specify whether the dance involved seven veils or popping out of a cake or riding in on a wrecking ball, or anything like that; popular interpretation insists that her dance was a lascivious one. Herod certainly liked it, and the doting step-dad made her a rash promise:

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want and I’ll give it to you.”  And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”  (Mark 6:22-23)

(And yes, a pedantic point here.  Herod was not technically a king.  Thank you for reminding him.  Would you like to add some lemon juice to his paper cut while you’re at it?  Some have suggested that Mark was being sarcastic; I think it more likely that people just referred to him as a king because his father was one and because he acted like one.)

Salome went to her mom for advice on what to ask.  Not surprisingly, Herodias had her demand the head of John the Baptist.  “ON A PLATE!”

This put Herod in a bad position.  He did not want to kill the prophet, but he had made a very public promise in front of some important people.  If he went back on his vow, he would look weak.  And for what?  A filthy rabble-rouser who was always denouncing him anyway.  From his point of view, he really had no choice.  So Salome got her boon, and Herodias got her trophy.

Salome comes off as quite the bloodthirsty vixen in this story.  At very least, she is being used as a pawn in her mother’s schemes to manipulate her stepfather.  In Oscar Wilde’s stage dramatization of the story, he adds an intriguing twist; in Wilde’s version, Salome has the hots for John, and here demand for his head is retaliation because he spurns her love.  After John’s execution, Wilde has Salome kissing the lips of his severed head.

None of which is mentioned in Josephus’ account of Herod Antipas’ reign.  He does mention John and that Herod had him imprisoned fearing that his preaching would stir an insurrection.  He also states that many people at the time blamed Herod’s execution of John, a good man, for his later defeat by King Aretas. 

It wasn’t until after John’s death, it seems, that Herod heard reports of Jesus and his ministry.  And when he did, he got a creepy sense of déjà vu.

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.  Some were saying “John the Bptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Others said, “He is Elijah.”

And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”  (Mark 6:14-16)

Freaky.

Shortly after this, Jesus left Galilee to teach in the regions of Tyre and Sidon, to the north of Galilee, and swung around through the territories ruled by Philip.  This might well have been to stay under Herod’s radar.  The text doesn’t specifically say this.  But the Gospels do say that a couple members of Herod’s household became followers of Jesus, including Joanna, the wife of Herod’s major-domo, Cuza.  (Luke 8:3)

But later still, on an occasion when Jesus was passing through Perea, some Pharisees come to Jesus with some concern-trollish advice:  “Leave this place and go somewhere else.  Herod wants to kill you.”  Perhaps they’re afraid he’ll stir up trouble.  Perhaps they were genuinely concerned about him; although he and the Pharisees were often at odds, his teachings were not entirely incompatible with their own, and they were not always hostile to him.  Or perhaps they just wanted to get him out of their town.

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’  In any case I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”  (Luke 13:32-33)

Herod has other things to worry about anyway.  One constant concern with him was his position as Tetrarch.  His brother Archelaus didn’t last long as King of Judea, and was yanked by Caesar for his incompetence.  Antipas lobbied hard to replace him, but instead the Emperor installed a series of Roman administrators to govern the province.  The best-known of these was a guy named Pontius Pilate, who actually held the position for a fairly long term, considering some of the problems he faced.

From the accounts of Pilate’s administration found in Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, we get the impression that every time Pilate faced a crisis, Herod Antipas would fire off a letter to Rome to let the Emperor know and to suggest that someone else ought to be put in charge of Judea.  Someone whose name begins with the letter “H”

Herod might have been pretty thoroughly Romanized, but he still made a point of going up to Jerusalem for the High Holidays.  Which is why he happened to be in town one particular Passover. He was probably as surprised as anybody when Jesus showed up on his doorstep with an armed guard and a note from Herod’s rival, Pilate.

We hear this story every year.  How Jesus, condemned to death by the Jewish Council on the charge of blasphemy, is brought before Pilate to authorize the death sentence.  According to the Gospels, Pilate is reluctant to do this, because he recognizes Jesus’ innocence; but he’s looking for a way to release the crazy Jewish prophet without having to take responsibility for doing so himself.  And then someone mentions that Jesus comes from the province of Galilee.

Upon hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean.  When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.  (Luke 23:6-7)

For the first time, Herod gets to see this prophet who seemed to be a reincarnation of John, whom he’d so long wanted to meet.  And…

…He’s disappointed.

He hopes to see wonders.  He hopes to hear wisdom.  He hopes to see John re-born.  Perhaps, he even hopes for the chance to ask John’s forgiveness.

He gets none of this.  Jesus says nothing.

But Herod is a philosopher.  At least his curiosity about this Jesus has been satisfied. And it occurs to him that it was quite decent of Pilate to give him that chance, especially the way they’d been plotting against each other all this time.  “That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.”  (Luke 23:12)

Shortly after this came the war between Aretas and Herod in which Herod was badly beaten.  The Emperor sent Vitellius, the governor of the neighboring province of Syria to come to Herod’s aid, but before the campaign got underway, Tiberius died, and Vitellius decided to withdraw pending further instructions from the new emperor.  He didn’t really like Herod much anyway.  Herod doesn’t seem to have gotten along with any of his neighbors.

They wound up working together again, though, when Vitellius was sent to negotiate with the King of the Parthians, and Herod helped with the negotiations.  The mission was a successful one, but Herod annoyed Vitellius by sending word quickly back to Rome, seeming to claim credit.

The death of Tiberius really marked the fall of Herod Antipas’ star.  His nephew/brother-in-law, Herod Agrippa, happened to be close school chums with Caligula, Tiberius’ successor.  And Antipas was becoming annoying with his frequent whinging to Rome and his pleas to be granted more authority.

When Agrippa was given Philip’s old tetrarchy and the title of king, Herodias nagged Antipas into asking Caligula to be granted the same title.  At the same time as he put in his request, Agrippa presented accusations before the Emperor that Antipas had conspired against Tiberius and was now stockpiling enough arms to supply a sizable army.

Antipas had to admit to the weapons stockpile, but he very likely had a perfectly innocent explanation for them… which Caligula wouldn’t listen to.

Caligula exiled Herod to the Roman city of Lugdunum in Gaul, the modern-day Lyons.  Considering what happened to some of Caligula’s later enemies, he got off lightly.  The Emperor offered to allow Herodias to keep her property, seeing as she was Agrippa’s sister; but she chose to follow her husband into exile.


Perhaps theirs was a dysfunctional marriage; but it seems that in the end she loved him after all.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Prequel

Ages ago when Atlantis was young and the World still flat, when Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Reagan occupied the White House, I drew a black & white parody comic about a bullwhip-wielding, fedora-wearing adventurer named Arizona Schwartz the Lost Archaeologist.  And yes, the comic did bear some resemblance to a certain movie of that era

In the movie, of course, the Nazis are trying to find the fabled Ark of the Covenant and bring it back to Germany for Hitler, and the Hero is trying to stop them.  But it occurred to me as I wrote the comic that perhaps the hero would have done better to let Hitler just have the Ark.  Because the Nazis weren’t the first to try to steal the blessed thing.

When Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, he also received instructions to build a tabernacle, a word meaning “dwelling place”; a large tent that would serve as a portable place of worship for the Israelites.  And he received instructions for the making of various furnishings that would go into the Tabernacle, the most important of which was the Ark.

The Ark was a large chest, about 3 ¾ feet in length and 2 ¼ feet wide and tall.  It was covered inside and out with an overlay of gold, and had rings fastened to the corners through which long poles were inserted which were used to carry the Ark when the Israelites moved their camp.  The cover of the chest was called the Mercy Seat, (or the “atonement cover” in the NIV translation; Mercy Seat sounds better).  Placed on the cover were two cherubim fashioned of gold, one on each end, with their wings spread over the cover.  (Exodus 25:10-22)

Within the Ark was placed the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.  According to the New Testament Book of Hebrews and later Jewish Tradition, it also contained a jar of manna, the staff of Aaron, and maybe Moses’ baby pictures and some other stuff as well.

The Ark was kept in the innermost part of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, (or Sanctum sanctorum in the Latin Vulgate version, from which we get the term “Inner Sanctum”), apart from the general public worship area.  Only the priests and Moses himself were permitted in the Innermost Sanctuary of the Tabernacle.  When God spoke to Moses in their subsequent travels, he did so from the Mercy Seat, between the two cherubim, (which is why in the movie Belloq insists that the Ark was “a… transmitter, a radio for speaking to God!”)

Whenever the Israelites moved their camp, the Ark led the procession, carried by four Levites.  It also accompanied the Israelite army when they went into battle during Joshua’s campaigns against the Canaanites.

Once the Israelites were settled in the Promised Land, the Tabernacle was set up near the city of Shiloh, roughly in the center of the territories of the Twelve Tribes.  There the Ark remained for a good long time.

Several generations passed since the time of Moses and of Joshua.  A man named Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were priests at Shiloh, in charge of performing the sacrifices at the Tabernacle.

Eli seems to have been a decent enough geezer, but as is sometimes the case with preacher’s kids (present company I hope excluded), Hophni and Phineas were jerks.  The text says that  “they had no regard for the LORD.” (1 Samuel 2:12)  When people came to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle, they defied the traditional procedure for determining the priest’s portion of the sacrifice, and demanded their “cut” up front before it was even offered.  They also made a practice of sleeping with the women who served at the Tabernacle.  Eli tried pleading with his boys to cease abusing their priestly position, but they ignored him. They knew Pops was a pushover  and they didn’t take him seriously.(1 Samuel 2:22-25)

At about this time the boy Samuel, who grew up to be an important prophet, was brought to Eli to serve in the Tabernacle.  One night, Samuel hears a message from the Lord, telling him that he was going to lay down some big-time judgment on the House of Eli; “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.”  (1 Samuel 3:11).  Eli would not be exempt from this judgment, because he had the power to curtail his sons but did not and therefore he bore part of the responsibility for their wickedness. Apart from his duties as a father, as chief priest, he had a professional obligation as well.  When a superior turns a blind eye to the misdeeds of his subordinates, he takes on their blame as well.

Eli’s sons have been walking all over him for so long, that Eli has really developed a fatalistic attitude towards everything.  When young Samuel relays this message to him, Eli sighs, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.” (1 Samuel 3:18)  He should have done something earlier to keep his boys from going out of control, but it’s too late now.

During this period, the chief rivals of the Israelites were the Philistines, who dwelt to the west.  They are believed to be originally a tribe of the Sea Peoples, a group that swept across Greece and the Aegean Sea region during the Bronze Age.  They tried invading Egypt as well, but were repelled by Ramesses III and settled in some of the coastal cities of Palestine, around present-day Gaza.  From the late period of the Judges through the reigns of Kings Saul and David, the Philistines are depicted in the Bible as the Arch-enemies of Israel.  Although largely subdued in the time of David, they retained their independence until ultimately absorbed by Assyria in the 7th Century BC.  In modern usage, the term “Philistine” has been used synonymous with “uncouth barbarian”, but the Philistines had plenty of couth, thank you, and seem to have been superior in technology and weaponry than the Tribes of Israel.

After a particularly humiliating defeat by the Philistines at a place called Aphek, the elders of Israel asked what went wrong and somebody remembered the Ark, and how in the time of Joshua, the Israelites were unbeatable when they carried the Ark before them.

When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?  Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from our enemies.”  (1 Samuel 4:3 NIV)
 
So they tried again, this time carrying the Invincilbe Ark before them into battle; and…

The Philistines once again beat the snot out of them.  Even worse than before.

Some people, even religious people; perhaps especially religious people; seem to think of God as being like a video game where all you have to do is enter the right cheat code and you’ll get what you want.  The sons of Eli and the Israelites seem to have thought of the Ark of the Lord as a kind of magic talisman, +5 vs heathens.  It didn’t work that way.

Not only did the Philistines once again send the Israelite army running, they killed Hophni and Phinehas, who were with the Ark and probably helping to carry it, and they seized the Ark itself.

Back in Shiloh, Eli sat waiting by the side of the road for word of the battle.  He had a feeling in his gut that things were going to go badly.  He was ninety-eight years old and he could barely see, but his gut was working just fine  A runner came from the battlefield with the bad news:  the loss of the battle, of Eli’s sons, and of the Ark.  Upon hearing the last, Eli fell backwards out of his chair and broke his neck.  He had led Israel for forty years; he would lead it no more. (1 Samuel 4:12-18)

On top of everything, the text tells us that the pregnant wife of Phinehas went into labor upon hearing the bad news.  It was a difficult delivery, and she lived only long enough to name her baby Ichabod, meaning “no glory”, because “The glory has departed from Israel.” (1 Samuel 4:19-22)

The Philistines returned with their spoils of war back to the city of Ashdod, one of the five cities of Philista.  They placed the captured Ark in the temple to Dagon, a Canaanite deity which the Philistines had adopted and which seems to have been their chief god. Although originally a fertility deity, Dagon is often depicted as part fish, perhaps partially because his name resembles the Semitic word, “dag”, for “fish; and partially because the Philistines were sea-going coastal dwellers.  H.P. Lovecraft borrowed the name in a couple of his stories involving the Deep Ones, eldritch monstrosities from beneath the sea.

The next morning, when the acolytes of Dagon went to the temple, they found the great statue of Dagon toppled over, face down, in front of the Hebrew Ark, as if the god was worshipping it.

Well.  That was freaky.  But they righted the statue and went back to business.

The morning after that, the same thing had happened, only this time Dagon’s head and hands had broken off the statue and were lying on the threshold of the temple.  (The writer of the text comments that for this reason, the priests and worshippers of Dagon will not step on the threshold when entering the temple.  Next time I meet a Philistine, I’ll have to ask if this is true.) (1 Samuel 5:1-5)

Dagon wasn’t the only one to suffer.  The people of Ashdod began to suffer from hemorrhoids.  Or something.  The King James Version call them “emerods”, but many more modern translations call them “tumors”.  Some commentators have suggested that they might have been the swellings of the lymph nodes in the groin which are symptoms of bubonic plague.

The people of Ashdod blamed the Israelite Ark for their affliction, so the rulers of the Philistines decided to move it to another city, Gath.  The emerods broke out in Gath too, afflicting both old and young in their private places, and people began to panic.  Once more, the Philistine rulers moved the Ark, this time to the city of Ekron.  Another town, another outbreak, and by this point people were starting to die from the affliction, which to me suggests that it was something like the Plague and not simply a problem that could be relieved with Preparation H. (1 Samuel 5:6-12)

The Philistines were rapidly running out of cities.  This had been going on for seven months now, and so the leaders of the Philistines consulted their priests.  “Give the sucker back to the Israelites,” the Priests said, and they also advised giving an offering of gold with it, by way of apology.  They suggested that the gold be fashioned in the form of five golden tumors, representing the five cities of Philista and the tumors caused by the plague, and five golden rats, because they’d been suffering from a rat plague too.  Rats?  Why didn’t they mention the rats before?  Sounds like Bubonic Plague to me.

How they pull off the transaction is kind of interesting too.  The Philistines put the Ark and the gifts in a cart, to be pulled by two cows that have calved and have never been yoked.  Then the cows with the cart will be let loose near the border of the Israelite’s territory.  If the cows go by themselves to Beth Shemesh, the nearest Israelite town, then it will be a sign that the Israelite god had afflicted them; if the cows went back into Philistine territory, then the plague was a coincidence and the Israelite god had nothing to do with it.  (1 Samuel 6:1-9)

The people of Beth Shemesh, in the middle of harvesting their wheat, were delighted and surprised to see the ox cart carrying the Ark of God wandering across their filed.  They built an altar on the spot and offered the cows up as a burnt sacrifice to the Lord, (which, if the Philistines really had been suffering from the Plague, might have saved the people of Beth Shemesh from contracting it themselves).

The Philistines observed all this from a distance, and went back to their cities.  Some Levites came to take charge of the Ark.  It was taken to the city of Kiriath Jearim and Eleazar, the son of Abinadab, was consecrated to guard it.

All ended happily.  Well, except for about seventy men of Beth Shemesh (most Hebrew texts say 50,070, but that looks like a copyist’s mistake), who peeked inside the Ark and were struck down for it.  (v.19)  Which is probably why Indy told Marion not to look when the Nazis opened the Ark in the movie.  Did those 70 guys’ faces melt and their heads explode?  The text doesn’t say.

The text also doesn’t say if the Philistines got over their genital emerod problem.  Presumably the affliction ran its course and was over.  The writer of the text is more interested in the Ark.

I ended my comic parody of the movie by noting that if Hitler had gained possession of the Lost Ark, Germany might have suffered the same kinds of misfortunes that the Philistines did, and Nazi Germany might never have become a threat to the world.  And that shortly after the story takes place, the US economy, which had been struggling out of the Great Depression, suddenly took another nosedive.

After which, I said, a mysterious crate was taken from a maximum security warehouse in Washington D.C. and loaded onto a plane bound for British Palestine.  The plane disappeared somewhere over the Bermuda Triangle, and its cargo never recovered.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Know Your Herods 1: Herod the Great, King of the Jews

For much of the period leading up to, and well into the First Century AD, the politics and the fortunes of Judea were dominated by a single family, the House of Herod.  The various rulers who bore that name get only occasional mention in the New Testament, and none of it terribly flattering.  This hardly does them justice; the story of House of Herod is as full of intrigue, sex, and bloodshed, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, as their contemporaries, the Caesars.

The founder of the dynasty, and the most famous of the family, was called Herod the Great, and deservedly so.  He is probably best-known as the villain in the story of the Wise Men in the Book of Matthew, but there was far more to him than that.

Herod was not Jewish by birth.  His father, Antipater, was from Idumea, called Edom in the Jewish Scriptures, and regarded as the home of the descendants of Esau.  Idumea had been annexed by John Hyrcanus, king of Judea, in 125 BC, and its inhabitants forced to convert to Judaism.  Despite this, because of his Idumean blood, Herod was never considered to be a Real Jew.

For many years, Judea had been ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family which had come to power during the Maccabean Revolt in 164 BC and established an independent Jewish kingdom. This kingdom lasted for about a hundred years, until a civil war broke out.  The ruling King and High Priest, Hyrcanus II, was forced to resign his positions by his brothers, and the feuding sides asked the Roman general, Pompey, (who happened to be in the neighborhood putting down an uprising in Syrai), to arbitrate between them.

Pompey decided the issue by annexing Judea for Rome.  Because that’s how Pompey rolled.  He reinstated Hyrcanus as High Priest, but not as king; although later on Pompey granted him the position of ethnarch, which is Latin for, “Guy In Charge, But Not A King, So Don’t Get Funny Ideas.”  It would be another couple millennia before the Jews again had an independent state.

Antipater was a high-ranking official in Hyrcanus’ court and acted as the representative of Rome.  He was best buds with Julius Caesar, having once aided Caesar during his conflict with Pompey.  Antipater wrangled cushy administrative positions for both his sons; the elder, Phasael, became Governor of Jerusalem; (you can forget his name because I don’t mention him again), and the younger, Herod, was made Governor of Galilee.

Herod got along well with the Romans; less so with his subjects, who pressured Hyrcanus to put Herod on trial before the Sanhedrin for violating Jewish Law in executing an outlaw and his followers.  Herod won acquittal through a combination of sheer chutzpah and the pull of his influential Roman friends.

Herod married a woman named Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus.  He was already married at this time, to a woman named Doris, but this second marriage made him a member of the Royal Family and heir presumptive to Hyrcanus’ throne.  It would not be his last marriage.

Also during this period, Julius Caesar was assassinated, and the rulers of Judea found themselves embroiled in upheaval in Rome.  Cassius, who as you’ll remember from Shakespeare, helped organize the plot to assassinate Caesar, seized the province of Syria, and appointed Herod to collect taxes for him.  Herod was very good at this sort of thing.  Then, when Cassius was defeated by Marc Anthony, Herod switched his loyalty to Anthony.  This is another thing Herod was good at.

The neighboring Parthians invaded Judea and installed a nephew of Hyrcanus named Antigonus on the throne.  Herod and his family and perhaps as many as 5,000 fighting men fled the city of Jerusalem.  Installing his family in the safety of the mountain fortress of Masada, Herod traveled to Rome to plead to the Roman Senate for help.  The Senate appointed him basileus, (“king’) over Judea and gave him aid to help re-take Jerusalem.

He built a palace for himself in Jerusalem which he named the Antonia, after his patron, Marc Anthony.  But when civil war broke out between the members of the Roman Triumvirate, and Octavius, later known as Caesar Augustus, defeated Anthony, Herod switched sides again.  He went directly to Octavius, admitted he had supported Anthony, and promised to serve Octavius as faithfully as had his previous patron.  Octavius was impressed by his audacity, and probably recognized him as an effective administrator in an unstable province, and so retained Herod in his position as king of Judea.

Herod undertook many building projects during his reign.  It has been said that Caesar Augustus found Rome a city of wood, and left it a city of marble; well, Herod did much the same to Palestine.  In addition to the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem, and the fortress at Masasa, he built a city and harbor on the coast which he named Caesarea, after Caesar Augustus, which became the administrative capital of the province.

One of his projects came about as a result of his nighttime flight from Jerusalem during the Parthian invasion.  His mother was almost killed when her wagon overturned in the flight.  Herod almost succumbed to despair, but when he saw that she was safe, he returned to the fight with a renewed vigor and won the battle.  Afterwards, he vowed that he would be buried at the site.  Since the site was a place of no importance in the middle of the desert, he made it important by first building a mountain, by cutting off the top of a nearby hill and piling it up on the site, and then building a new fortress palace, which he named the Herodium, in the “crater” of this man-made volcano.  Since he intended to be buried there, it was appropriate to name this one after himself.

His most famous building project, however, was his renovation and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This temple had been built by Zerubbabel following the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity in the time of Ezra, on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  This was a massive undertaking, because it involved building up the sides of the mountain to create a wide platform for the Temple complex.

In accordance with Jewish Law, the workers building the Temple were selected from the priestly tribe of Levi, and the construction process was organized so that daily sacrifices could proceed uninterrupted.

Herod did not live to see the completion of the whole project, although it’s possible that the Temple proper was finished sooner.  Work on the Temple complex was still going on at the time of Jesus, some 46 years later; and the final Temple was only in existence for a short time before the Romans destroyed it during the Jewish Rebellion of AD 70.  Today, only the Western Wall of the Temple remains standing.

You’d think that fixing up the Temple and all, he’d be a pretty popular guy, right?  No.  He paid for all his building projects with some heavy taxes; (he was good at levying taxes, remember?).  Those taxes didn’t just go to civic improvements, but also to a lavish lifestyle more suited to a Roman despot than to a sober priest-king like Hyrcanus.

He ruthlessly suppressed dissent, and kept a personal bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers.  Although the Temple in Jerusalem was his crowning achievement as King of Judea, he also built other temples to other religions in non-Jewish parts of his province, like in Samaria and in his city of Caesarea. In honor of his Roman patrons, he had a golden eagle erected over the gate to the Temple, something many Jews considered an outrageous blasphemy, and commanded that the priest perform special prayers and sacrifices in honor of the Roman Emperor, something which skirted awfully close to the heathen practice of emperor-worship.  And underneath it all, many would never really accept Herod because he was an Idumean and not a Real Jew.

He ruled Judea with an iron hand, and largely kept the Romans out of Jewish affairs as long as he reigned; but the order he maintained came at a great personal cost. He had to deal with constant plots and intrigues by his family, many of which were initiated by his sister, Salome.

Herod deeply loved his second wife, Miriamne; but has a funny way of showing it.  On a couple occasions where it looked like he might be executed, he left orders that if he died, Miriamne was to be killed as well, so that she would not become the property of another man.  When Miriamne found out about this, she did not take it well.  Did she really plot to poison her husband?  Herod’s sister planted rumors that she did, and Herod had her imprisoned based on these suspicions.  Eventually, under Salome’s persuasion, he ordered Miriamne’s execution.  He spent the rest of his life regretting his action and mourning her death.

Over his career he had a total of ten wives and several sons, most of which were either picked to succeed him at one point or other, or was plotting to do so.  He executed some of his sons for trying to kill him.  A couple of them actually were.  His buddy Augustus once joked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.  Since Herod didn’t eat pork, the pig would be relatively safe.

Towards the end of his life, Herod developed an agonizing, lingering illness which ultimately killed him.  Modern medical scholars have speculated that it was severe diabetes, or perhaps chronic kidney disease complicated with a side order of Fournier’s gangrene.  Which is like regular gangrene, except not nearly as much fun.

It is at this point that Herod enters the Biblical narrative with the story of the Three Wise Men.

You know the story.  Matthew chapter 2 tells of how Magi from the East, sages who studied the stars, show up at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking where is he who was born King of the Jews.  Imagine how that must have sounded to a dying, paranoid old man who had spent the better part of the past few decades fighting off claimants to his throne.  Perhaps Herod thought this was another plot against him.  He certainly would have suspected that even if the Magi were genuine, that someone would seize on this baby they were looking for as an excuse to overthrow him; if not one of his ambitious sons, then maybe some rabble-rousing Pharisee or politicking Sadducee.

But Herod plays it cool.  He co-operates with the Magi and pretends to be interested in paying homage himself to this Newborn King.  He sends them to Bethlehem, where the Chief Priests assure him that the Messiah is supposed to be born, and waits for their report.

He has to wait a long time.  The Wise Men aren’t stupid.  Ominous dreams warn them that Herod is not to be trusted; and perhaps they got a creepy vibe off him from the very beginning.  Once they’ve found their baby, they return home by another route, bypassing Jerusalem and Herod.

What is Herod to do now?  Somewhere out there is a potential threat to him wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Well, he didn’t get to be Herod the Great by letting a bunch of babies walk all over him.  He orders the death of every male child in Bethlehem, two years of age or younger.  

Or did he?  The Gospel of Matthew is our only source for this story.  The Jewish historian Josephus, who writes about many of Herod’s other crimes, never mentions it.  On the other hand, given some of Herod’s other bloody acts, Matthew’s account isn’t really out of character for him; it’s the kind of thing Herod would have done under the circumstances.

Although Medieval interpreters liked to magnify the Massacre of the Innocents into a near-genocidal action, Bethlehem was not a terribly large town; and even if we add the surrounding countryside, the infants killed by the edict would have numbered maybe about a half dozen or so, maybe twenty tops.  Perhaps the death of a few babies in a small backwater town escaped Joesphus’ notice; or perhaps he felt it an insignificant crime compared with some of Herod’s flashier executions and assassinations.

Herod didn’t live to learn if his messiah-exterminating campaign was successful.  He died a couple years later in the year 4 BC.

Before his death, he ordered that prominent people from every city and every tribe of Judea be rounded up and held in the hippodrome he had built in Jericho.  At the moment of his death, the prisoners were to all be executed.  That way, Herod reasoned, his death would be an occasion for grief and mourning.  He didn’t want anybody dancing at his funeral. At the last moment, however, his sister Salome rescinded his order; perhaps the only decent thing she did in her life.

He was interred in the Herodium; and although archaeologists have found what they believe to be his crypt in the ruins, his body was not in it.  It is suspected that during the Jewish Revolt, when many rebels took refuge in the Herodium, as they did at Masada, some of them vented their anti-Roman feelings by despoiling Herod’s tomb.

Herod left four surviving sons, each of which had been named by him as a successor at one time or other.  Rather than making any single one of them king, the Romans divided Judea up among them.


Even though Herod was never a popular king with his Jewish subjects, there was a sizable faction which recalled his reign as a period of stability and of relative autonomy.  He was called Herod the Great with good reason, and the Herodians of Jesus’ time argued that Israel’s best hope for a political future was one united under a king from the house of Herod.