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)


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. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jonah and the Rest of the Story

The story of Jonah is one of those Bible stories that everyone has heard of.  He’s the guy who was swallowed by the whale.
But although people like to focus on the fishy aspects of the tale, that’s only the beginning of the story, and not even necessarily the most important part.  What happened to Jonah after the whale, and what does it have to do with a Colocynth?

A what?

To begin with, let’s start out with the familiar part.

Jonah was a prophet living in a town called Gath Hepher in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, somewhere around 800-750 BC.  It was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel, and during this period King Jeroboam recovered territory which had previously been taken by the King of Damascus.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, commanding him to go to the city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital of King Sennacherib, and to preach against it.  Nineveh was a great city and in the Bible is associated with wickedness. The prophets Nahum and Zephaniah also prophesied the destruction of Nineveh; but they didn’t have to actually go there.

Jonah did not particularly want to go to Nineveh, so he went instead to the port of Joppa and booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, which many scholars identify with Tartessos, a Phoenician mining colony in southwestern Spain; about as far in the opposite direction from Nineveh as Jonah could go.

A violent storm came up which threatened to sink the ship, and the sailors guessed (rightly) that the gods must be pissed at someone.  They cast lots to try determining who the guilty one might be, and the lot fell to Jonah.

Jonah confessed that he had disobeyed God and that the storm was all his fault.  He told the sailors to throw him overboard and that then the sea would become calm.  At first the sailors refused and tried to save Jonah – showing a greater moral sensibility than the man of God did -- but the storm became even more violent and finally they felt they had no choice.  Begging the Lord’s forgiveness, they do as Jonah said and chuck the prophet overboard. 

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1:17 NIV)

This is the part that people get hung up on.  It sounds impossible.  Jonah couldn’t have been swallowed by a whale, because a whale’s throat is too narrow for a man to pass through.  Well, technically the original Hebrew says “big fish” not whale, but that doesn’t make things much better.  How many fish are there that big?  Was it a special fish, created specifically for this purpose, like an aquatic version of the Cat-bus from My Neighbor Totoro?  Or was it, as some more prosaic critics have suggested, merely a second ship whose name happened to be “The Fish” that came along in time to pick up Jonah before he drowned?

However he was saved, Jonah did not drown.  He spent three days in the belly of the beast, and he prayed.  And this is where we pick up the story:

“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.” (Jonah 2:2)

After three days, God commands the fish to regurgitate Jonah on dry land.  Then once again he gives Jonah his commission:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I will give you.”  (Jonah 3:2)  Running away won’t do any good.  Jonah obeys and goes to Nineveh.

Nineveh was located on the Tigris river in the northern part of Mesopotamia, across from the modern day city of Mosul.  The King James version tells us that it was “an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”  

That can’t mean that it took Jonah three days to get there; the coast of the Mediterranean Sea lies hundreds of miles away from the city. In order for the Big Fish to deposit Jonah three days away from Nineveh, it would have had to swim all the way around Africa, up the Persian Gulf, and most of the way up the river Tigris, all within the three days Jonah was inside its belly.  Herman Melville, dissecting Jonah in one of the chapters of Moby-Dick, found this even harder to believe than the whole “swallowed by a whale” business.

A more likely interpretation is that Nineveh was so big it took three days to walk around it.  Archaeological excavations around the site of Nineveh suggest that it was about eight miles around – considerably less than a three-day walk.  But perhaps the text is referring to the Greater Nineveh Metro Area, including a few nearby cities as suburbs.  Or perhaps it means that it took Jonah three days to visit all the neighborhoods of the city doing his preaching.  This is the interpretation the NIV translation leans toward:  “a visit required three days.”

So Jonah goes through Nineveh, warning them that the city would soon be destroyed.  “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4)  And something remarkable happens.

People believe him.

The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (Jonah 3:5-6)

The king decrees a national period of prayer and fasting, and urges his citizens to give up their violent and evil ways in hopes that God would relent and decide not to destroy Nineveh after all.

And God does relent:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

Now it’s Jonah’s turn to be pissed.  He knew this would happen.  He knew that God was so compassionate, just so dang slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love that he’d wind up forgiving everybody.  “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish,” he gripes.

God doesn’t see any reason for Jonah to be all cranky; but Jonah doesn’t feel like listening to reason.  He goes to a place east of the city and builds himself a little shelter in order to watch and wait, hoping he might get to see some cool fire ‘n’ brimstone action eventually.

Jonah was a prophet, not an architect, and the rude shelter he put together didn’t provide him with much in terms of protection from the elements; but God once again provided for him.  A vine grew up over the shelter and provided Jonah with some degree of shade.

What kind of vine was it?  King Jim calls it a gourd.  Other translations call it a shrub or a bush.  Many versions just call it a vine and leave it at that.  J.R.R. Tolkien, who translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible, called it a “colocynth”, a type of wild gourd common to the middle east and looking like a small watermelon.  His editors changed it to a castor oil plant, a tall, leafy plant of the region, possibly because they suspected he made "colocynth" up.  "None of your elf-words, Tollers!  This is serious!  This is the Bible!"

But the shady leaves of the colocynth didn’t last long.  After a day or two, God also sent a worm to chew on the vine.  The plant withered and died, leaving Jonah to roast in the sun.  Miserable and faint with the heat, Jonah complains that he’d be better off dead.

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said.  “I am angry enough to die.” But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?”  (Jonah 4:9-11)

God leaves Jonah, and the reader, with that rhetorical question. 

We don’t know what happened to Jonah afterwards; presumably he went home to Gath Hepher.  Maybe, as tradition state, he wrote the book about his adventure which bears his name; or perhaps it was written some time later by someone else.

Presumably the Ninevites relapsed into wickedness, because we know from history that eventually the Babylonians conquered Assyria and destroyed the city; although not before Assyria conquered and absorbed the Kingdom of Israel.  But for a time, they gained a reprieve from the destruction to come.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus cites the story of Jonah on an occasion when some Pharisees and teachers of the Law ask him to provide a miraculous sign to prove his credentials.

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!  But none will be given it except for the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”  (Matthew 12:39-41)

Here Jesus is stretching things.  It is only by a generous interpretation of the Gospel narrative that we can say Jesus was in the tomb for three days; and it wasn’t three whole days and three whole nights.  Still, I think we can grant the Gospels some poetic license here.

Although I have to wonder if the most significant parallel between the story of Jonah and the story of the Resurrection is not the number of days the protagonist spent buried away from the surface world but the message that God had compassion on the sinners who knew not their right hand from their left, and extended to them forgiveness.